Drawing on interviews with formerly incarcerated fathers and court observations of child-support hearings, this article explores the state’s role in the massive accumulation of child-support debt. Arguing that this role is too often hidden from view, the article demystifies how much “child” support debt is actually owed to the state itself—and is thus as much about state obligations as familial ones. These state obligations emerge from two main sources: public assistance payback policies, which “bill” noncustodial parents for the cost of the public aid received by their families; and interest charges on all support debt, which most states charge at rates of up to 10 percent. Both state practices hit incarcerated parents especially hard, since they are usually unable to keep up with their support orders while in prison—and often unaware of how and why their debt is accruing. By becoming a means to prop up the state, support debt acts very much like other forms of carceral debt. Yet it also inserts the state into familial relations in ways that can exacerbate conflict between parents and complicate fathers’ ability to care for their children.

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